Spoken Word Poetry: Education in Art

By Katherine (Kate) Pangilinan

A multimedia feature  on New York City’s spoken word poetry community. This is the final project for my Fall 2014 multimedia journalism class. You can read the original article here.

When Sore Agbaje moved from Nigeria at the age of 8, she did not understand why. A visa lottery her father won, a proverbial golden ticket, brought her and her family to Jamaica, Queens with the promise of a better, fairer education. Tucked in the privacy of her room, this shy girl crafted poetry that was destined to be spoken on a stage as prestigious as Lincoln Center.

She just didn’t realize this quite yet.


From Talent to Vocation

“Our music appreciation teacher–I forgot his name–he took us to Lincoln Center to see an opera,” she says, recalling her first visit to that world-renowned arts center. “And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, could I ever perform here? Nah, I can’t… like, what would I do?'”

Though she was already an accomplished poet in high school, having won her senior year’s poetry slam and the 2012 Silver Key Award from Scholastic Art and Writing, spoken word was still just a tool for self-expression.

Urban Word NYC
First Draft Workshop at Urban Word NYC

Like most young adults and teenagers, a younger Agbaje saw spoken word poetry as a therapeutic form of self-expression, and a medium to helped foster self-confidence. But in New York City, the art has grown and become a method of inspiring an interest in literacy and language arts within students.

In the last few weeks of high school, Agbaje had developed an innate understanding that spoken word poetry could do more than just alleviate her shyness or the stress of personal issues. After she graduated, she knew she wanted to take her art seriously.

However, pressure from her parents, who had left a well to do life behind in Nigera to start from scratch, wanted her to balance art and education.

“I’ve grown up with very strict parents, and they have supported my art. But they haven’t made it easy,” she says. “After I graduated I felt like I needed to do something with my art, something important. I had this drive, and I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know where to start. I was very lost.”


Sore Agbaje
Sore Agbaje, 2015 Youth Poet Ambassador of NYC

The Urban Word

Two weeks after graduation, she found Urban Word NYC—a non-profit dedicated to utilizing spoken word poetry as a way to promote literacy to young New Yorkers.

“It was great to be embraced—immediately embraced—by people, and to have people appreciate my work and help me grow,” she says. “When you’re by yourself, you tend to think, ‘Oh my gosh, my poetry is so great,’ so when you’re in a group and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone’s poetry is so great,’ it’s no longer just about you. It’s about what you’re creating. That space. That community that’s there.”

Today, at the young age of 19, Agbaje’s art has brought her twice to the stage at Lincoln Center to compete in the Youth Poet Laureate Poetry Slam. Through Urban Word’s internship, poetry workshops, and mentorship program, Agbaje became empowered by her art in a very different way.

“My first time doing YPL, it was a great feeling,” she recalls of the 2014 competition. “This was my first slam outside of school. I was 18 or 17 and it was the first time I felt like, wow I’m doing something. Poetry can get me into places that I never thought I could get to. It was interesting to see the full circle of life—like, I am actually at Lincoln Center. I am actually performing.”

She placed as a finalist in both years, and currently holds the title of 2015 Youth Poet Ambassador of New York City. Aside from Lincoln Center, Agbaje has also gone to perform for the Secretary General of the United Nation at the 2014 International Youth Day Conference in New York City, and the Cyphers for Justice and Peace Conference at Columbia University.

Aaya Perez, a Urban Workd NYC Youth Board Member
Aaya Perez, Urban Word NYC Youth Board Member

Aaya Perez, one of Urban Word NYC’s Youth Board members, has been a part of the non-profit for four years and also attests to the good that their program has done for the youth.

“Urban Word is such an interesting kid of place. You don’t get a lot of places that give so much voice to the people they’re servicing,” she says. “Here, if you are passionate about what you do and you’re within age range [14 to 19] and you want to help other people do what they’re doing and improve themselves, then you can help out with that.”


A Message, A Lesson

The journey to becoming an educator follows a similar path of discovery, passion, and action.

Mason Granger, creator of poetry slam locator app SlamFind and producer at Mayhem Poets, recalled how he made the jump from future-marine biologist to full-time poet and educator along side founders Kyle Sutton and Scott Tarazevits.

“We met at Rutgers University and there was an open mike there that we started. And once we graduated out of there we said we wanted to keep doing this,” he recalls. “So then we started going into our friends’ English classes when they would do their poetry section, and they went well. And then we went, ‘Alright, maybe we can make a living out of this.’ And so we submitted materials to school districts, PTAs and colleges, and we’ve been making a living doing this for the past 9 years.”

The Mayhem Poets, another poetry organization, was formed in 2000 with the intent to reshape society’s view of poetry. Slam Chops, a program developed under The Mayhem Poets, is a New York City based educational training operation meant to provide opportunities for aspiring poets.

In one of his pieces called “Food Fight,” which Granger performed at one of Urbana Poetry‘s weekly open mike nights at the Sidewalk Café, he embellished on popular children’s foods in order to detail the war-like destructiveness of their fatty contents.

“For me, the most rewarding part of this is when I have a good time, when everyone else in the crowd has a good time, yet still an actual message was conveyed,” he adds. “And if all three of those things happen, then the show was successful.”

Matt Kilkelly, English teacher and Literary Magazine moderator at Archbishop Molloy High School

In Briarwood, Queens, Archbishop Molloy High School English teacher Matt Kilkelly finds a different sort of inspiration. Though the weekly writing group called Lit Mag is student-operated, KilKelly has acted as moderator and advisor for the club for more than a decade.

“One of the most rewarding aspects is when students tell me how they found their own individual voice through Lit Mag,” he says “They become more skillful in their craft, but mostly I see them become more confident in their abilities. Prior to this, they were very shy and didn’t believe they had any talent.”


Wielding Words

High school senior and first time slammer Emma Koosis, performed her first competitive piece also at the Sidewalk Café during their Tuesday night open mike.

“It was scarier than I thought it would be and less scary than I thought it would be,” she says about the experience. “I think it’s really empowering to be able to get up there and say things that are true for you and may be true for other people too.”

Agbaje shared similar sentiments.

“I’ve been writing in my room and I never thought it would go anywhere, but people actually want to hear what I want to say. People—their perspective and the way they see life—can actually change by just listening to words.”


Knowing When (Not) to Quit

Last Sunday, I quit on a friendship that at one point, I thought I could never live without.

But this post is not about that.

Sometimes, when you have a million events going on in a Lower West Side studio house, incorporating a million different PR firms to accompany said studio house’s own PR department, lists get lost. Lists don’t send. Lists send, but don’t actually get sent. And as any reporter, frequent New York club-goer, and fashion affection-ado will have you know: lists are life.

There’s always a bout of anxiety when the PR flips through their lists, looking for your name, even though you know you are on it. In my case, it’s a double bout because ever since middle school, it was always a struggle to get Pangilinan spelled correctly (forget pronunciation).

So when mine doesn’t show up, I give my bosses’.

No luck either.

With the most well-faked (but still noticeably fake) apologetic no, the gatekeeper and her clipboard send me off.

Eventually, I manage to get an audience with a higher-up who alerts me of my unfortunate situation. He mentions something about a woman in polkadots, but I am so frustrated and embarrassed, I don’t really hear him.

With no luck backstage and no guarantee that I’ll even be allowed in for the show, I run back to the main entrance hopping from line to line, waiting 15 minutes each time only to find out that my name is not on any of their lists either. 30 minutes elapse into an hour, and an hour into two hours.

I text my boss a play by play of the night.

I tell her I won’t quit without a fight.

An absurd half promise.

I’m not really much of a fighter.

I can’t even fight to save a friendship.

My boss texts me back, compiling names of friends, names of friends of friends, phone numbers of people with Hollywood names like Sydney Stern or Damon Fitzpatrick. In the mess of messages, a glimmer of hope: the very person I’m supposed to interview texts me, telling me he can get me in.

Of course, at this point I’m so lost in a mosh pit of New York’s finest in well-treated leather leggings and spiked Jeffrey Campbells, there is no real way to physically get me in. (Name on list and subsequent wristband still a requirement.) What a joke. The fabulous and fashionable that surround me are my kindred unfortunate-souls, looking at every list, as I do, hoping that their name is on it.

It’s 10 minutes over showtime.

I checked over the last possible list.

My name is not on it.

…And then, like a dove in a flock of confused city pigeons, I see the woman in polkadots.

From the instant that I saw her standing in the middle of that crowded lobby, I felt like I understood destiny and opportunity. I felt like I knew how life worked; life was a test of patience and persistence; a game of hide and seek with a stand out figurehead (a god, a soulmate, a fashionista). I passed that day with flying colors. I persevered the roller-coaster of should I stay or should I go now. And at the same time, despite the contradiction to my feeling of accomplishment, I also felt that, in the grand scheme of things, this night was just meant to be.

It totally doesn’t make sense. But regardless of the divine cosmic powers behind my night, fact is I didn’t quit and it paid off. Not only did I get that interview, I got a couple of free beers, a champagne shower with sexy male models dressed in Rochambeau, a reunion with some guys I met at my cousin’s wedding in Mexico last fall, and a sweet conversation with a gorgeous, (and knowing my luck, probably) gay, do-it-all beautician slash DJ.

That day, last Sunday, was my first backstage interview ever, and my name was not on the list. In a back and forth process that felt similar to the agony of figuring out how to deal with a friend who was no longer really a friend, I went back and forth in my mind between wanting to get the job done and wanting to go home. I could come out strong and resourceful, or leave as just another poor victim of circumstance.

I’ve been using my career to prop myself strongly over the bullshit I’ve been dealing with, so the last thing I wanted to do was go home empty handed. But despite my stubborn pride, I had, at one point, walked out of Milk Studios and sat in a defeated heap on the tiny bench at the small coffee shop next door.

I considered quitting, and it was a really damn strong consideration.

So why didn’t I do it?

There were two phrases that continuously played in my mind:

“If you look like you belong, you belong.”

My best friend told me this four years ago at the BCBG Ready to Wear Fall/Winter 2010 Fashion Show. There we were, dressed to impress, two 15 year-old girls from Queens in $20 Forever 21 dresses, rubbing elbows with the fabulous. We weren’t quite Ugly Betty, but from then on, there was an importance to image and attitude that I would never forget.

The other phrase:

“You are media. You were invited to come. You are meant to be there. (Politely) Don’t take no for an answer.”

Not only was it important to fake-it-till-I-made-it, it was important for me to realize that I had every right to be there. I mattered because I was sent there, invited there to do something. This wasn’t just another opportunity to compensate my shit love life with really cool Instagram pictures, really cool life experiences and resume bullet points. This was an opportunity that 15 year-old me standing in that tent in Bryant Park almost five years ago had been dreaming of.

This wasn’t a way to kick it to someone. This was my dream.

Through this adventure, I really had no idea whether or not I should quit. But I was certain as I sat in that coffee house, as I took the blow of disappointment at the end of each line, each apologetic conversation, that I had it in me to do more. I belonged there. I wanted to be there.

And there I was.

“Is it better to fake it than be alone?”

Less than a week out of Paris, I sit on my cluttered bed watching Chinese bootleg copies of Sex and the City, wondering why I just told my current Could-Be-Something that I wanted to take a step back, and why, instead of a step back, I actually felt like all I want to do is escape his doting and affection and our potential for a great relationship and bury myself in books, school, writing, and my token obsession of the month.

Okay that’s not completely true. I don’t want to do just that.

I’d like to hanging out, too, with my girls. And my boys. And boys I don’t really know, but I want to get to know, non-committally (which isn’t even a word, as spell check is so courteously notifying me).

Is something wrong with me? Where is this feeling of wanting to be alone coming from? Why is it happening right when I’ve found someone who is handsome and sweet and compatible and actually kind of, sort of, really cares about me?

The Samantha/Miranda hybrid of my girlfriends thinks that this complete turn around is the result of the high from living a 5 star lifestyle for a week in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Of course I brought up the fact that this city is also one of the most romantic in the world so ipso facto I should have been pining for my Mister Almost-There a great degree. (Which I hadn’t. To any degree).

My friend, however, was still unconvinced. She was sure once I remembered that life wasn’t a tour of the best places in Paris or even a cozy brownstone hotel off the Tuileries Gardens with a complementary breakfast, I would be back to my old self, dreaming and wishing for a nice, strong, smart man to shower with my adoration. I will change my mind again. My feelings will come back.

But why did they leave in the first place?

Perhaps I got so caught up with wanting to be with someone I never bothered to check and see who it was I was ending up with. And now that I’ve gone ten days without him, I realize that, while I’m not exactly better off, I’m also not any better with.

Have I always been blinded? Maybe this is the reason why it never worked out with someone.

Okay, I’m generalizing. Most of the time I do send the boys away prematurely for some reason or another (a story for another time), but this time I realized, after finally acting couple-y and lovey-dovey with someone for longer than another sporadic, super short weekend, being with anyone that basically fits the bill of smart, interesting and handsome is not enough. If I don’t want to have sex with them and I don’t care about them as much as I care about any of my best friends, then what is the point of wanting a relationship?

I’m basically incinerating my belief in firework-love. To briefly explain firework-love: ever since the ending of the last Twilight movie where the viewer is basically left with the conclusion that love is meaningless unless you can live forever like a vampire, I decided that true love is not measured by duration. True love is measured by how deeply the energy of the love between you two can imprint the universe… like a firework, burned into your retinas.

Firework. There you go.

With that theory gone, I don’t mean to say that I now believe that love has to be forever (since I will never be immortal I refuse to believe in that). What I do mean to say is if I’m not going to forge that deep, caring, intimate, I-would-forever-if-I-could-forever-but-we-can’t-so-let’s-do-it-for-as-long-as-we-have bond with the guy, I will not go out of my way to pencil in yet another commitment in between my time to socialize, two internships, a full time academic career and 2 executive positions on a volunteer organization.

Not very flexible, I realize. But if you’re going to be in a relationship and be a good partner in that relationship, they have to be near the top of your list of things to do. And there are few people in this world that are worth bending your many pre-existing priorities to fit them in.

My want for freedom is not so definite, though. I am partly afraid that my best friend may be right. Was this discontent always there and simply catalyzed by my ten days in a foreign place without constant Wifi or cellphone service? Or was I really just experiencing a vacation high?

I could spend hours weighing my thoughts but I think the only thing to really consider is the fact that presently, I don’t feel any sort of distinction for Mister Now. And acting in the present is honestly the only thing in the world any of us can do.

So what is it that I do now? I could fake the affection and continue down the road to relationship and just pray that the infatuation comes back. Or I could be alone.

Shit choices.

…Or maybe not?

To quote another 90s romantic comedy:

“Maybe I’ll share my life with somebody, maybe not. But the truth is when I think back over my loneliest moments, there was usually somebody sitting there next to me.”

I’m turning 20 on Friday so I definitely am not able to doubt whether or not I’ll share my life with someone, but I believe Ally McBeal has it right when she says that the loneliest moments occur when you’re unable to communicate with or understand someone who is talking to you, right there beside you. I don’t want that for myself. I don’t want that for this man. I don’t think anyone wants that to happen to anyone.

So I’m settling for alone. Sucks because maybe I’ll change my mind and then be out of luck. Sucks because I have to hurt someone I care about. 

But I bet you it’s better for everyone this way.

Stuck on Page 134

The first time I began projecting myself onto Elizabeth Bennet was nearly two months ago. How could you not want to be just like Lizzy? How could you not be inspired by her refusal to put up with a man’s “courting” bullshit? How could you not find her snark and frankness agreeable and refreshing, especially considering that most women (in a TOTALLY disillusioned effort to keep up decorum) resort to passive aggression? She is an incredibly beautiful character. Bless this lady hero. Because of her (and the swoon-worthy, perpetually brooding Mr. Darcy) I devoured Pride and Prejudice.

…Up until page 134.

I always lose bookmarks, so I fold the corners of pages to mark where I had left off. I also fold the corners of pages to denote areas of a book with really juicy quotes or scenes.

The first time I folded the pages of this scene, I was so critical of Jane’s wish to think the best of Mr. Bingley and those conniving women. Jane was a fool, I thought. Jane was a fool. Even without the omniscient narrator, I could easily see just how fake those women were. And you have to be a stubborn fool to believe that pressures from other people do not influence your decisions in some way.

So, Jane was a fool. I believed, as Elizabeth believed, that Bingley had been convinced by his sister and Ms. Darcy that he was not in love with Jane. True, Elizabeth was running mainly on conjecture, but to me her assessment resounded so logically, so beautifully. Fold that corner.

But then… every time I tried to read that book, since that first encounter, I would forget to mark where I need to pick up and consequently I would fall back to page 134. And it was always only until the end of their exchange that I realized that I’ve already read this before! (This happened, like, 10 times. Seriously.)

At one point–I think it was around the end of June and the first week of July–I just stopped reading the book. I was too distracted, too projected on these characters with love lives that had gone south, too preoccupied with my own love life that had gone south. I didn’t know what was happening anymore in the book (and in my life).

But things in life picked up, and today I picked up the book again, continuing from that same creased page. Upon completing the scene for the uptinth time, for the first time, for all of Elizabeth’s femme-forward ideals which I held in a regard way above love-stricken Jane, I realized Jane had it right with her rose colored lenses, too. My love for Elizabeth was fueled by my life-long desire to be a strong, independent, badass woman. But suddenly I considered that, maybe–dare I say it–my lady hero’s awesome sass is more jaded than it is, well, awesome.

I think women with strong hearts have the most difficulty in love. We make sure to see right into the darkness of people’s hearts in turn to make sure we aren’t made into a fool. But we forget that, as rotten and unreliable as people may be and as strong and reliable as it may be to be on your own, to love someone and to be loved in return is one of the greatest treasures we can have in life.

Elizabeth wants love but she wants it a certain way, and while it is self-respecting to realize that hell-yeah you deserve to have love come to you in the realest, simplest, most genuine way possible, having that perspective is also blinding. People are rarely real, simple, and genuine all the time (if ever). We miss out on good things (not perfect, but good!) looking for love that way. Jane may be the dumb optimist prone to heartache because she wears her heart on her sleeve for anyone. But Elizabeth is the sad realist who could very well end up alone if she keeps believing that the only way to find true love is to keep her heart pad-locked in a box with a tag resting over the combinations that reads, “I like you, but you’re on your own.”

Today I have learned to love Jane. I want to be a blend of the two.

Like an Amaretto Sour!

Sweet and strong. Loving, with a punch.

Below I’ve posted the scene that this essay is in reference to.

(Courtesy of prideandprejudicebyjaneausten.com)

A day or two passed before Jane had courage to speak of her feelings to Elizabeth; but at last, on Mrs. Bennet’s leaving them together, after a longer irritation than usual about Netherfield and its master, she could not help saying:

“Oh, that my dear mother had more command over herself! She can have no idea of the pain she gives me by her continual reflections on him. But I will not repine. It cannot last long. He will be forgot, and we shall all be as we were before.”

Elizabeth looked at her sister with incredulous solicitude, but said nothing.

“You doubt me,” cried Jane, slightly colouring; “indeed, you have no reason. He may live in my memory as the most amiable man of my acquaintance, but that is all. I have nothing either to hope or fear, and nothing to reproach him with. Thank God! I have not that pain. A little time, therefore–I shall certainly try to get the better.”

With a stronger voice she soon added, “I have this comfort immediately, that it has not been more than an error of fancy on my side, and that it has done no harm to anyone but myself.”

“My dear Jane!” exclaimed Elizabeth, “you are too good. Your sweetness and disinterestedness are really angelic; I do not know what to say to you. I feel as if I had never done you justice, or loved you as you deserve.”

Miss Bennet eagerly disclaimed all extraordinary merit, and threw back the praise on her sister’s warm affection.

“Nay,” said Elizabeth, “this is not fair. You wish to think all the world respectable, and are hurt if I speak ill of anybody. I only want to think you perfect, and you set yourself against it. Do not be afraid of my running into any excess, of my encroaching on your privilege of universal good-will. You need not. There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense. I have met with two instances lately, one I will not mention; the other is Charlotte’s marriage. It is unaccountable! In every view it is unaccountable!”

“My dear Lizzy, do not give way to such feelings as these. They will ruin your happiness. You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper. Consider Mr. Collins’s respectability, and Charlotte’s steady, prudent character. Remember that she is one of a large family; that as to fortune, it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for everybody’s sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin.”

“To oblige you, I would try to believe almost anything, but no one else could be benefited by such a belief as this; for were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him, I should only think worse of her understanding than I now do of her heart. My dear Jane, Mr. Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man; you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who married him cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me, that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger security for happiness.”

“I must think your language too strong in speaking of both,” replied Jane; “and I hope you will be convinced of it by seeing them happy together. But enough of this. You alluded to something else. You mentioned two instances. I cannot misunderstand you, but I entreat you, dear Lizzy, not to pain me by thinking that person to blame, and saying your opinion of him is sunk. We must not be so ready to fancy ourselves intentionally injured. We must not expect a lively young man to be always so guarded and circumspect. It is very often nothing but our own vanity that deceives us. Women fancy admiration means more than it does.”

“And men take care that they should.”

“If it is designedly done, they cannot be justified; but I have no idea of there being so much design in the world as some persons imagine.”

“I am far from attributing any part of Mr. Bingley’s conduct to design,” said Elizabeth; “but without scheming to do wrong, or to make others unhappy, there may be error, and there may be misery. Thoughtlessness, want of attention to other people’s feelings, and want of resolution, will do the business.”

“And do you impute it to either of those?”

“Yes; to the last. But if I go on, I shall displease you by saying what I think of persons you esteem. Stop me whilst you can.”

“You persist, then, in supposing his sisters influence him?”

“Yes, in conjunction with his friend.”

“I cannot believe it. Why should they try to influence him? They can only wish his happiness; and if he is attached to me, no other woman can secure it.”

“Your first position is false. They may wish many things besides his happiness; they may wish his increase of wealth and consequence; they may wish him to marry a girl who has all the importance of money, great connections, and pride.”

“Beyond a doubt, they do wish him to choose Miss Darcy,” replied Jane; “but this may be from better feelings than you are supposing. They have known her much longer than they have known me; no wonder if they love her better. But, whatever may be their own wishes, it is very unlikely they should have opposed their brother’s. What sister would think herself at liberty to do it, unless there were something very objectionable? If they believed him attached to me, they would not try to part us; if he were so, they could not succeed. By supposing such an affection, you make everybody acting unnaturally and wrong, and me most unhappy. Do not distress me by the idea. I am not ashamed of having been mistaken–or, at least, it is light, it is nothing in comparison of what I should feel in thinking ill of him or his sisters. Let me take it in the best light, in the light in which it may be understood.”

Elizabeth could not oppose such a wish; and from this time Mr. Bingley’s name was scarcely ever mentioned between them.